By Robert Duthie, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Processors’ Association
The Scottish North Sea herring season will shortly get underway, with vessels from Fraserburgh, Peterhead, and Shetland working traditional grounds in search of the ‘silver darlings’.
The importance of the humble herring to Scottish society and its cultural and economic development is immense, with there being evidence of herring fisheries in Scotland from Medieval times onwards Herring was the foundation of many of our fishing communities around the coast and became part of the beating heart of the nation. The late 1800s and early part of the 20th century was a boom time for the herring industry, where boats crowded cheek by jowl in harbours such as Wick, Fraserburgh and Lerwick.
In many ways, herring helped fuel the industrial revolution, being a key food staple that helped provided sustenance for workers in factories and fields across the land.
Today, the picture is rather different, with the closure of the herring fishery in the late 1970s and early 1980s to enable stock recovery, resulting in UK consumers seeking other varieties of fish. Since then, the North Sea stock has bounced back big style, and today it is the only herring fishery in the north-east Atlantic that is independently certified by the Marine Stewardship Council for the sustainable manner in which it is harvested. Such recognition is testament to the hard work of Scottish herring fishers in putting sustainability at the heart of their operations.
Such commitment is exhibited in many ways, including Scottish herring (and mackerel) fishers engaging in pioneering science initiatives to sample and assess stocks to provide data and information that aids sensible and pragmatic fisheries management. For environmentally conscious consumers, this is great news, for it means they can eat North Sea herring in confidence, safe in the knowledge that the fishery is sustainably harvested.
It would be wonderful if UK consumers rediscovered their past love for herring because it really is a fish that ticks all the right boxes – sustainable, nutritious, delicious, and great value for money. Herring is full of essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that keep our bodies in good working order. In the kitchen, there is surely no simpler, tastier, nor healthier dish than traditional herrings in oatmeal, and the fish also lends itself to a whole range of other recipe ideas. Smoked herring – kippers – are a great breakfast treat, and marinated herrings are gaining in popularity all the time.
In some countries, most notably the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and the Baltic states, Scottish herring is extrememly popular, and forms an important part of the herring export business from Scotland. Indeed, sales of canned herring soared in all these countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, with consumers looking for value-for-money, nutritious food that can easily be stored. The Dutch revere ‘maatjes herring’ – a premium, lightly brined product, consisting of the first, high-fat content summer-caught herring of the year. This fishery by Scottish vessels has been underway since the start of June.
So, with UK health experts recommending that people should eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish such as herring, now really is the time where we should start rediscovering our love for the silver darlings, and make sure it forms part of our weekly food shop.